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Executive Leader Cllr Brenda Warrington

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Councillor Brenda Warrington, Executive Leader of Tameside Council

Putting the Power Back in the Northern Powerhouse

Wednesday, 26 June 2019

Let’s take a look at two countries. Country A is one of the richest regions in Northern Europe; Country B contains 5 out of the 10 poorest regions in Northern Europe. Country A has spent £17.6 billion on one piece of rail infrastructure, nine times more money than is being spent on the entire rail infrastructure in Country B put together. One town of 285,000 people in Country A has more private research and development jobs as the whole of Country B, population 15 million.

The numbers are utterly stark, but what makes it even more shocking is that these aren’t two different countries at all. They’re two parts of England, the North and the South. How unequal are we? The former chief civil servant Lord Kerslake, who now chairs a committee on the future of Britain’s economy, has said that the closest parallel between North and South England in the 2010s would be East Germany, a country that suffered almost forty years of dictatorship, and West Germany following the end of the Cold War.

It’s particularly appropriate to highlight this as we recently marked the fifth anniversary of the then-Chancellor George Osborne’s “Northern Powerhouse” speech. It’s easy to write off the Northern Powerhouse, then and now, as an elaborate branding exercise backed up with nothing except hot air. That wouldn’t be entirely fair though. The creation of combined authorities and metro mayors has allowed many parts of the North to have more of a say in decisions. That’s clearly been seen this week, where the Greater Manchester Combined Authority laid out plans to upgrade and renovate our transport network over the next decade, including buses, trams and bikes.

But the fact remains that this progress, significant though it is, has taken place despite, and not because of, support from powers-that-be in Westminster. The current Northern Powerhouse Minister, Jake Berry, isn’t allowed to sit in the Cabinet, and the rumour is that upon assuming the office of Prime Minister Theresa May banned any mention of the Northern Powerhouse at all.

More toxic than even this is that all of the work on devolution has been taking place in an atmosphere of savage austerity. This week’s report on the Northern Powerhouse from the IPPR North, the organisation that have probably done the most work to highlight the gap between North and South, makes for grim reading. Between 2009/10 and 2017/18 the North suffered £3.6 billion worth of cuts to public spending, while the South East and the South West together saw an increase of £4.7 billion in real terms. This has meant that since the creation of the Northern Powerhouse in 2014, 200,000 more Northern children are living in poverty, weekly pay has grown by only £12 compared to £19 nationally and 150,000 more jobs pay less than a living wage. Perhaps most worrying of all, despite much of the idea for the Northern Powerhouse being built on improving transport infrastructure, the number of cancelled or significantly late trains on TransPennine Express and Northern Rail franchises has more than doubled from 2.1% to 4.9% of all services. If the success or failure of any political project is judged on lives changed for the better, then it’s clear that we still have quite a way to go.

What we need is a government with policies that put the North first, in the most literal sense of the word. The inequality we face has been decades in the making, and it’s clear now that it will not be solved by piecemeal ideas and policies. We need ambition on a scale of that which created the National Health Service and spearheaded the first wave of devolution. The kind of policies that act as the centrepieces for entire governments, tying in everything that has been done so far and providing the funding to turbo-boost it to as yet unseen levels. The Northern Powerhouse as an end in itself will not be sufficient. It can, and must, be the beginning of something much, much greater.


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